Monday, 1 October 2012

A view from computer science

Even though the fellowship has come to an end, I will still be updating this blog with news and additional resources which have arisen from the project.

I'm very pleased to be able to present some thoughts on this topic from Olivia Leonardi. Olivia works with the online resource What follows is Olivia's own take on this topic and doesn't necessarily reflect my views, but that's been a main theme of this project: harvesting and hearing about other people's views on this subject. Thanks Olivia!


A July post attempted to answer the question of whether recording equates to engineering by examining the characteristics that define each discipline. Today’s post builds on the point made in the previous article that engineers and those who record music share some aims with their respective jobs, particularly when it comes to the design and use of digital recording devices. In this post, Olivia Leonardi discusses some of the ways in which software engineering applications have contributed to and significantly changed the audio recording process. Olivia is an expert in computer science who writes for an online resource that offers information about the field, including where people in related fields can find computer science open courseware.

Advances in Computer Science and Audio Engineering Have Permanently Changed the Music Industry

Audio engineering is one of the most dynamic industries of the professional world. In just the last 20 years, compressed MP3 files have replaced cassette tapes and CDs, while software programs have largely taken the place of analog recording equipment. Today, various technologies are available to help engineers optimize vocals, instrumentation, and recording quality.

Contemporary audio engineering can be defined by the difference between tracks recorded in the studio and those assembled using computer software. Some artists prefer the traditional methods, scorning those who attempt to reach musical perfection with electronic tweaking methods; others appreciate the convenience and relatively low cost of making music on a computer. Regardless, most listeners cannot differentiate between the two methods. As a result, many studios have closed their doors – and many musicians have created makeshift recording spaces in their own homes. In a recent New York Times article, rapper Aesop Rock, electronic musician Moby and indie rockers the Eels all described their experiences with home recording.“One of the greatest luxuries is having a permanent small studio space that's always waiting for me,”Moby said. “It's secure when I leave, and it sits there waiting patiently for me when I get home. It's the perfect companion.”

The home recording movement that has overtaken the music industry would not be possible without small-scale, user-friendly technology and equipment. The most notable change of the last few years relate to the advancement of computer programs that function as digital audio workstations (DAW), which are integral to recording, editing, and playing back music. Ironically, the first software-based DAW – Digidesign’s Pro Tools – first appeared more than two decades ago, and is still widely used today. Other popular computer-based DAWs include Acid Pro, Adobe Audition, Mixcraft, Paris and Sony Sound Forge. While recording studio space and services can cost musicians thousands of dollars, software DAWs are relatively cheap; the 32-track Pro Tools LE system, for instance, costs less than $500.

It gets easier, too. With the rise of smartphones and tablet devices, on-the-go musicians can even record tracks using mobile audio workstations (MAWs), which are typically available as downloadable apps. Some of the leading MAW brands include Cubase, FL Studio and V-Control Pro. Open-source audio workstations are another popular trend with home musicians. These non-commercial programs, such as Audacity and Rosegarden, feature a variety of plug-ins and accessories, and can be accessed using Mac, Windows and Linux platforms.

While many musicians have embraced DAW and MAW interfaces that essentially replicate traditional equipment, other engineers have approached the recording process with a more creative mindset. One example is Tristan Shone of metal band Author & Punisher, who was recently profiled in Wired. Shone personally designed and built each instrument and piece of recording equipment used to create unique sounds for his musical endeavors. His inventions include dub machines (rendered using the open-source program, Arduino) that create loops and rhythms; a keyboard-like device that enables him to manipulate samples; and ‘Rails’, an invention that functions much the same as a slide trombone. As quickly as software companies and app developers churn out audio workstation interfaces to emulate existing sounds, innovators like Shone are creating new sounds altogether.

As current as these technologies seem, the nature of digital recording dictates that they will become outdated in a matter of years (or less), only to be replaced with newer, more advanced equipment. But for the time being, musicians around the world are not only writing songs and playing instruments, but also moonlighting as home-based audio engineers. 

Olivia Leonardi